New Mexicon Recap

I’m here to tell you why this is my current favorite non-invitational convention and such an important event.

I’ve been to New Mexicon four times. I missed the first year, and I think that was the only year I missed. It has grown and changed and the vibe has continued to shift. The first year I went it was teeny, like 35ish people? And I got to meet some very cool folks. It was the first exposure to a mustering system rather than a preregistration system, and it’s very good for me as a player (so much variety, good read on the GM) and as a facilitator (I deliver a kickass pitch and never have trouble filling a table).

This year I think they had 100 or so folks. The muster was too big last year so half the players in any given slot were peeled away into preregistered events this year. I love this system! I really like the mix, because I think both kinds of event are fun and different. They’re also doing more larp events, which suck up a lot of players at once.

There was some weirdness revolving around a Vietnam Biker Vets group that ran an event next to ours and then invited themselves into our space, which I did not love. Irritating, frequently disrespectful I thought, but whatever. I think the hotel itself could have done a better job cordoning off our spaces and made the boundaries less porous. But not a big deal at all, just a distraction.

The past few years I’ve been doing a road trip from Tempe to Albuquerque, because road trips are awesome bonding experiences. My bestest con roomie MadJay Brown has accompanied me on all of them! We also end up with a car in ABQ and that’s really nice for getting out and about. This year, though, my brain finally turned to mush when it comes to route finding: we ended up way, way off course somewhere in eastern Arizona, a hundred miles off-course from the I-40. Our Thursday was mostly taken up with that. Aggravating and embarrassing.

Jonathan Perrine had the local-knowledge hookup and hosted a road trip Friday morning to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, about an hour away. There’s a website. Check it out. The actual experience of the place is like a cross between the most terrifying children’s museum imaginable crossed with an escape room. Super interesting, super gameable/gamer-friendly, really put my head in a good place for roleplaying the rest of the time we were there. Declined the opportunity to drink absinthe “poured over a cotton candy cloud.” For reals. I cannot wait for an excuse to get my daughter out there. (For the terrifying children’s museum, not the absinthe.)

I’ve already written about the various events I was in but to recap for posterity:

Friday night was Bluebeard’s Bride, run by Katherine Fackrell. I had no idea that Katherine was pretty much running the whole con when she took four hours out to run this event. Good grief! It was super weird and freaky and fucked up and I think my favorite event. Yeah. It’s stuck with me the tightest. So grateful I got into that event.

Saturday morning I was blown out from a late dinner and drinking and general too-old-for-this-shit-ness so I listened to Mark Diaz Truman hold court at the con table. It’s not a Magpie con but it’s impossible (and unwanted!) to avoid them at New Mexicon. Always super interesting to talk with him. Interesting to watch him age into the sullen cynic I always knew he had in him. (He’s neither of those things and fuck if I know how he fights it. (xoxo Mark!))

I kind of regret missing playing that slot but I super enjoyed socializing, having a relaxing lunch, and rolling into my so called Spotlight GM event at the midday slot at full power.

My event was good old Sagas of the Icelanders with an excellent table of players. SotI is the only PbtA I’ll break my “no more than four” rule for. I dragged Jahmal into the table at the last second because he’s awesome and more awesomeness is always better, right? Also had Morgan Ellis there, who I felt like I owed a better table experience than the last one I gave him, and three players whose names escape me now and I’m not sure follow the Indie Game Reading Club. Anyway. It’s an imperfect game but I know how to run it really well. Can’t think of a time I ran it that wasn’t just terrific. Played with the controversial Man 2.0 playsheet, which I’m happy to own despite the controversy (sorry Keith). It’s a better book for one-shot play I think.

I think the con owes me a t-shirt for spotlight GMing. I’ll have to check with Nicholas Hopkins or someone about that.

Kit La Touche ran a fun table of Masks, the first time I’ve gotten to play it. Best superhero game I’ve ever played because it completely dispenses with comparative physics wankery. Oh fuck do I hate that. I hate it so so much. With Great Power did a great job swapping powerrrrz for drama, but Masks really nails it in a package that works for me. Had a terrific in-the-weeds technical talk about it with Brendan Conway later that drove home some stuff. Imma run it this year I think.

Sunday night was a very nice, very chill game of Golden Sky Stories run by Nicholas Hopkins. It was a D&D monsters hack of it called Fantasy Friends, where everyone is a dungeon monster doing nice things for each other between assaults by those nasty adventurers and their crime wave of assault, murder, and thievery. It’s a diceless thing so you burn through various economies of points in each scene, which is not my favorite model of play but it’s such a low-stakes game (can we figure out how to get this lonely gelatinous cube a hug?) that I never felt too amped up about managing those economies. It’s also a game with a fanmail-type deal where we’re supposed to be paying each other with tokens that we can use to improve our relationships. Between this and Epyllion I’m feeling kind of down on fanmail-type things where the players aren’t all engaging in good faith. Which, unfortunately, is far too common even among friends. Sometimes it’s just hard to continuously pay attention, and it’s kind of unfair to demand that of players just to make a core game economy work. I’d play it, absolutely yes, it’s just something I’m thinking about.

I stuck around post-con with Jeremiah Frye and Ralph Mazza to play The Expanse board game. Came so very close to pulling out a win but Jeremiah blew us out early with a huge lead. It was super nice to unwind with a different flavor of make-believe.

The roadtrip home was way less eventful. I took Jahmal and Ralph back to Tempe via Flagstaff, which is my very favorite place in Arizona. I wish we could have spent more time there.

A couple more days of gaming here (City of Kings and Star Trek Ascendancy), including my regular Tuesday night game (Coriolis), and I’m super gamed out. But I’m not feeling as sloshy and overfilled as I did after Colorado! Which is weird. Maybe all that driving and downtime.

Anyway: If you’re in the midwest or southwest, I cannot recommend New Mexicon highly enough. It’s still a quirky event but the size just works for me. I’d like to make BigBadCon in October but I’m getting kind of iffy about events that size.

Coriolis Wednesdays
Extremely Initial Impressions

Okay! My week of endless awesome gaming has finally come to an end with Coriolis last night. Regular Tuesday crew plus very special guest star Ralph Mazza!

The experience was all over the place and I don’t want to put too much weight on anything since I’m coming off a week of near total exhaustion. Tl;dr it was fun-ish and I might need to do some homework to fix some possible deal breakers.

The Essential Economic Cycle

The big takeaway, I think, has to do with the essential engagement cycle of the game. That is: make a roll, engage the prayer mechanism, pay the GM a darkness point, deal with the GM’s bullshit, repeat. It’s been modified from the very excellent semi-rich dice of Mutant: Year Zero and I have to think it’s because the designers didn’t actually understand or appreciate why MYZ works. It’s been simplified for Coriolis and maybe broken in the process.

In MYZ, a single 6 is a success no matter what, and you have the option to “push” once and reroll all your misses. If you do, you might get more 6es (yay!) but you’re gambling against getting 1s, which are damage you need to deal with. Depending on which of the three die colors they show up on, that’s different flavors of bad: broken gear or mutation flareups or whatever. It’s a neat choice and more importantly it feels like a choice.

In Coriolis, a single 6 is a “limited success” and 3 or more 6es are a “critical success.” I kind of read between the lines and actually made this slightly gentler by making 2 successes an unadored just-plain-old success, treating a single 6 as the only “limited success” and applying complications. This is already 90% supported by RAW if you look at how the skills are written. So my small tweak in no way changes the basics. Anyway. Instead of “pushing” there’s “praying,” which lets you reroll all the misses and gives the gm a Darkness Point (DP).

Given the die pool sizes, it’s awfully hard just to get a single 6 much less multiples. So either you’re fucking up an awful lot or you’re praying a lot.

There were a few thoughts on this from the players.

One is that if you’re praying all the time, it’s not really a special thing or even a choice any more. I think that’s accurate! But I think it’s also an aesthetic call. Like, maybe praying all the time is expected and the GM is supposed to have a really healthy supply of DPs. It’s not meant to be a juicy choice like it is in MYZ.

That leads to the point of darkness points.

In Coriolis, there’s a lot of stuff the GM is specifically constrained from doing, both mechanically and narratively, because they have to buy those moves with Darkness Points. In some cases it’s tactical stuff: my NPCs can’t take reaction moves like parrying or opportunity attacks. There’s even nastier stuff on the narrative side: I can invoke a character’s Problem as I see fit for a DP. I can inflict various maladies. I can complicate scenes with a list of stuff that, as I read it, I’m not allowed to without DPs.

That would normally be a really interesting twist to me! And that’s how I read it initially: if the players don’t feed me DPs and just accept failure consequences (or limited success complications), there’s a whole menu of problems that I cannot inflict on them. But I was playing with Ralph Mazza, an implacable system-destroying terminator from the future, who pointed out that the players don’t actually have that much power to starve the GM because there are other ways to generate DPs than prayer: Traveling deep into space, and being exposed to horrible shit. As the GM, I can engineer the situation such that I’m still getting DPs — not as many, perhaps, as when the players are also freely praying and don’t give a fuck. So I don’t think that’s the whole story.

There is a whole lot more DP flow in combat scenes though, since the stakes are so high. Probably it still breaks close to even: each time a player needs a few more 6es to generate a crit or whatever, they pray and I immediately spend on reloading or reacting or doing all the other PC-only stuff I have to pay for.

It feels, at a very high level, like the economy is not quite dialed right. But I’m not sure! I’d like to see another session or two where the players are maybe stingier with the prayer and figure out what they’re doing narratively to generate DPs anyway. Stuff like facing horrors and flying deep into space, both of which are, you know, the things they signed up to do. I’m not sure if it’s an actual perverse incentive or just a hard choice to face: doing their job inherently attracts the attention of Darkness.

Space Travel RAW Is Fucked Up

My absolute favorite thing about MYZ is how the Zone spools out. The PCs head out into the Zone, I randomly generate and draw and otherwise engage in procedures, and the world grows in an interesting, organic way. It’s a sandbox that the players give a shit about, and that’s a dime-sized design target they’ve hit.

It looked like the travel stuff in the Atlas Compendium was going to try and achieve that vibe. You decide what kind of space they’re traveling in, roll on some encounter tables, roll again to see how the NPCs feel about you (friendly, angry, whatever) and, you know, just kind of procedurally work your way through a journey.

Well so the cool thing in MYZ’s zone generator was that you might not actually encounter anyone, or it might be a weird phenomenon. There were several axes around which you’d generate your square mile blocks. In Coriolis, though, you roll for an encounter every two hours if you’re in heavily traveled space. EVERY TWO HOURS. It takes about a day per AU to travel, as far as I can tell (it’s super iffy). Am I really rolling 12 times a day? Really? And the various tables are way chock full of ships and people. If I’d actually done that, it’d be an endless circus of crap. Not a good look.

I’m gonna need to fiddle with that system because as written, it’s not interesting at all. The travel tables need to make encounters more meaningful, I think.

There’s also an undiscussed thing in the system where it seems like space travel is supposed to be a meaningful, interesting choice BUT it might also be that space travel is kind of skipped over ’til you either get to your destination or get into a space battle. There’s system support for both, which I felt like kind of didn’t do either one very well. I much preferred the feeling of making the trip its own set of situations and problems. The DP system supports that as well, giving me opportunities to introduce technical or supernatural problems along the way if I have the budget for it. Or, one assumes, being forced to leave the PCs alone if I don’t. But again, I can kind of fiat my way into getting at least a few DPs because of the depth or length of the trip.

Adjunct issue: it feels like money and upkeep is supposed to be a driving motivator for the PCs, but there’s not a whole lot of support for that. There’s an interesting table that describes upkeep costs that vary depending on where you perform your maintenance (more civilized = cheaper, which is good!). But there’s also a thing where portal travel is so fucking terrifying that you’ll most likely split the navigation costs with a caravan of ships. That’s a great image, very desert trader caravan-feeling, but then there’s nothing procedural to tell you how big or how often a caravan might be, particularly headed somewhere obscure. It’s fine, no big, I can totally just eyeball that. I just wish they’d made a bigger deal out of it because I think it would have been interesting.

My gut tells me they tried to make it interesting by introducing caravans and bulk haulers (like, you’d literally just get hauled through the portal) into possible space encounters. You know, the one you roll for every 2 hours. Dumb, boring, I think we can do better.

Weird Holdover System Problems

Coriolis has exactly the same system problem as everything else Free League has done: they never, ever consider the rules in light of the players using them against each other. The PvP stuff just falls apart and it’s an awful mess.

The game introduces a system called Reputation, which produces relative bonuses and penalties between characters. I think it’s straight out of Mutant Genlab Alpha, which has an identical system. If you’ve got more rep than your target, you get bonus dice equal to the difference. If you’ve got less, you LOSE dice equal to the difference. That is a two-die delta per difference in a roll-off that’s intended to be a versus test.

We had a situation where the rich scientist ship owner character (Rep 7) needed to order the plebian humanite pilot (Rep 1) into cabin confinement. Under RAW, the captain got +6 dice and the pilot got – 6 dice. That is ridiculous. I think I’m gonna have to just give the higher-rep person the bonus and call it good. I’m totally fine with rep being a heavy mechanism but a 12 die difference means you might as well not even roll.

There’s some math-lazy shit in combat as well (had to have a fight to see how it worked!) that bugs me but I don’t think breaks the game. It might. The most egregious is deciding whether to aim a shot or open up with full auto. Aiming gives you bonus dice, and given the extreme likeliness of prayer, you’re gonna get a good outcome with a big pool and a single reroll. Automatic fire lets you reroll all you want without praying (cool) and if at any point you rolled a 1 your clip is empty and you need to reload (also cool). But it costs you 2 dice. And obviously, the bigger the pool the more likely you’ll empty your clip even on the very first roll. That seems like a terrible choice.

That stuff doesn’t even bug me. We’ll just fine tune it until we get where it feels like a better choice.

Last Thoughts

The vibe is marvelous. It’s also highly stylized, to the point where it’s pretty dissonant, I think, for the players to live in a world where everyone wears caftans but also modern spacesuits.

It might turn out that the game really does want everyone praying all the time, but then I think it becomes very hard for the players to meaningfully push against that to keep the darkness from creeping into their lives. I’m interested to see if the players will start pushing against rerolls in the hopes of keeping my DP budget lower. It might also be that if they knew what I can’t do without DPs, they’ll face a more educated decision.

I miss MYZ’s richer dice. Coriolis feels…impoverished. Might in fact fiddle a bit and see if maybe I can reintroduce more of that vibe, like 1s are DPs I earn but only if you pray, more MYZ style. Hell, maybe go full MYZ: 1s on the attribute dice are DPs, 1s on the skill dice are yes-but complications, 1s on the gear dice break the gear. (Oh shit Ralph I think I fixed it!)

Oh Yeah Storytime

Our group is an explorer crew, with a trailblazer, scientist and engineer as PCs and a soldier and computer/sensors nerd as NPCs (played last night by Ralph, who came up with such an awesome backstory OMG I can’t even).

They got hired by the Foundation’s archaeological institute to go check out a wreck they’d acquired in a distant system. The wreck was of a cruiser from the Portal Wars era, like 600 years old, that had gone missing and just decided to show up.

Some marvelous competency porn scenes (thank you so much for that turn of phrase Jonathan Perrine ) en route. By the time they started their big slog waaaay out to the gas giant zone I’d accumulated a very tasty DP pool, which I then used to start dicking with the crew: bad sensor array, weird spooky signals from a nearby black hole, then aw dang their ship’s quirk — faulty thrusters — meant the ship entered an uncontrolled tumble for a while. The ship’s engineer fucking hates space and spent lots of time barfing. The trailblazer occasionally gets possessed by … things … when he’s out in the dark so that’s amusing. The scientist is a drunk. The soldier wants to shoot people when they barf or act crazy or drink too much so, you know.

Then haunted ship hijinks ensued, concluding with a freaky ass twisted column of ancient crew bodies gathered in the ship’s caverous bridge, and then a fight with a strange humanoid made of nanites, maybe.

I was reminded of how much better this kind of game is when I have time to prep. Thanks to New Mexicon all last week I’d had like an hour to doodle down and immediately forget a bunch of ideas.

Continuing next week! Bring a snack because I’ll probably write too much again. 😉

And I finally, finally got Kit La Touche to run me an excellent session of Masks. Supers are not my regular jam but if they were, I think it’d have to be Masks. He said it was a weird session and blamed me for how weird it was, but I really dig that we were able to get lots of emotional content on the table and the system had something to say about that.

It’s a far more elaborate game than I was expecting for some reason! Felt more like Urban Shadows than it reads, probably because of some shared moves and ideas. Super glad I played it, and I’m thinking I’d like to run it soon.

Look at that big beautiful relationship map.

LOOK AT IT.

God damn do I love me some Sagas of the Icelanders. Ran a really strong table of it at New Mexicon for my “spotlight GM” event and folks seemed to have fun. Fun fact: this was the first time I’ve ever run it at all all-male table. It was fine but I could definitely feel the texture change a little.